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Sherlock on Sherlock

Are you a Holmes fan? Is there a GCSE Eng Lit student in your house? Catch the The Sign Of Four when it comes to Horsham or Eastbourne

A Blackeyed Theatre production of Sherlock Holmes mystery The Sign of Four is on a mega tour and dropping into Horsham on 28 and 29 Jan and Eastbourne in April. It was on my Uni reading list and this year it’s a GCSE set text, so I asked Luke Barton, who plays Sherlock Holmes himself, some elementary questions…

Why The Sign of Four?

It’s the second Holmes book and it’s not as well known as other stories like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles but it’s just as exciting. It takes you round the world, to colonial India and it will keep you on the edge of the seat especially because it’s less known. The Blackeyed company likes putting on literary classics and giving them a new bold interpretation and this year The Sign of Four has been introduced on to the GCSE English Literature syllabus.

Is it daunting playing a character as well-loved as Sherlock Holmes?

I’ve done quite a lot of Shakespeare and those parts have all been played before by big names but for some reason they didn’t bother me quite as much. Someone said to me ‘Sherlock Holmes is the Victorian Hamlet – everyone’s had a go’.

I decided I just had to approach it in my own way. I’ve watched Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr and enjoyed them but our version is much more grounded in the book and Victorian London. As it’s the second novel Conan Doyle was still building the image of him.

Do you think the Sherlock TV show has brought a new audience to the novels?

TV is so good now, theatre is very much competing with the likes of quality television but I think if you enjoyed the recent TV series you’ll enjoy this. There are actually several references to The Sign of Four across the series.

Our audience for the show is so diverse. We have a lot of students coming, families with younger children, and retired people who know the stories inside out.

We’re taking the tour to China in June. Apparently Sherlock Holmes is huge over there. That’s amazing for something so Victorian and so British in a historical sense.

What do you think is the enduring appeal of the novels?

I think it’s the mystery element. There’s something about mysteries that we love and the characters of Sherlock and Watson spending their lives immersed in these complex, thrilling mysteries – I think we’d all like to have that kind of life!

The book’s references to colonial India are sensitive in parts, which is no doubt among the reasons it’s a GCSE set text. Has anything been changed for a modern audience?

We’re certainly very true to the book in terms of setting and dialogue. We keep the spirit of the language and the structure but it has been updated and addressed in certain aspects – the colonial stuff is referenced and talked about. The way that the British ran India is acknowledged and the way Indian characters are spoken about is softened in places and also highlighted. So we’ve certainly tried to keep to the spirit of the original and also acknowledge that we’ve moved on from then. I studied history and I think it’s a part of history we don’t talk about enough, to expose the hypocrisy.

…and Holmes’ cocaine use under Watson’s disapproving eye?

That’s still in! I did some research because I thought he’d be all over the place but apparently it was weaker in those days and he would have actually been using it as a sedative to try to calm himself and all that was going on in his mind.

How modern is the staging?

The structure of the play and the design and costumes and the language are traditional but the staging is very modern. We’re all on stage all the time. When were not in a scene we sit at the back. It’s part of a way of acknowledging we’re playing a part to the audience. The set is very symbolic, India and London, it’s a lovely mix of modern and traditional. We also have live music – some characters are playing three instruments each.

Were you a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories before?

I’ve read most of them I think. I downloaded them all onto my Kindle about three years ago, after seeing Sherlock on TV, and I loved them. They were my reading to and from work. A lot can be read in a day. The Sign of Four is a novella so it’s very pacy. Once Mary Morsten arrives seeking help it really never stops. By contrast, Agatha Christie is often quite slow and considered. Sherlock needs the thrill of solving the mysteries – that’s what he’s really addicted to.

The Sign of Four is appearing at The Capitol, Horsham on 28 and 29 Jan and the Devonshire Park Theatre Eastbourne on 30 April and 4 May.  

interview by Debbie Ward

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